Five Tips for Shooting Concerts on Film

Five Tips for Shooting Concerts on Film

2200 1418 Josh Solomon

As both a longtime gigging musician and film geek, I often end up slipping into the crowd during downtime to take some pictures. And over the years I’ve noticed more and more people doing the same. These days it’s not rare to see kids armed with slick vintage cameras snapping away in the front row. Shooting film gives show-goers their own creative outlet, produces a free souvenir, and does it in vintage style.

But shooting concerts on film brings with it a number of challenges – unpredictable or nonexistent lighting, film that’s too slow to keep up with the action, security snagging our cameras before we’re even in the doors.

Here are five basic tips to help you make great images of your next show on film. There’s aren’t hard-and-fast rules by any means – just a few things I’ve learned from being a performer who just so happens to love film.

Choose the right camera

If you want to take pictures, you have to have a camera. Unfortunately, most venues discourage non-press photography at shows (check with your venue). But these rules tend to be a bit less stringent for cameras that look like an amateur machine. So when choosing gear, try to find one that at least appears to be a non-pro camera.

While vintage cameras in general seem to find their way past security, some can do so more easily than others. SLRs from the ‘80s and ‘90s too closely resemble pro photogs’ DSLRs of today and are sure to be prohibited. Older mechanical SLRs from the ‘60s and ‘70s fare better due to their more archaic designs, and all the better if you’ve got a silver finish camera, since these tend to slip past security more easily than the more professional-looking all-black counterparts.

Rangefinders fare even better. Their old-world aesthetic distances them even further from the professional, modern SLRs, even if they’re every bit as capable as those machines. The Voigtlander Bessa series, Leica M series, and the many fast, Japanese, fixed-lens rangefinders are a few examples of cameras that seem to get past security without a hitch.

But it’s the smallest of 35mm cameras, the point-and-shoot, that’s best suited to sneaking through the gates. They’re often encased in plastic and look like useless toys compared to the monstrous, tech-laden DSLRs that professional concert photographers use. Feel free to bring just about any plastic fantastic point-and-shoot into a music venue, but beware – these cameras aren’t ideal for shooting concerts for reasons we’ll soon explain.

Shake the shakes

Shooting a concert often means shooting in low light, so the camera must be stable enough to shoot handheld at 1/60th of a second or slower (provided the shooter is using a 50mm lens – more on that later). SLR’s are naturally disadvantaged here, as the shooter has to contend with mirror slap. Heavyweight professional SLR’s such as the Nikon F-series, the Canon F-1, and the Minolta XK do a good job of mitigating mirror slap, but these are less likely to pass through security due to their bulk and professional aesthetic. More security-friendly SLR’s with incredibly stable shutters and mirrors include the entire Olympus OM series, the Canon FTb, and my personal favorite, the Pentax SV. I’ve been able to handhold these cameras successfully at 1/15th of a second, often to stunning effect.

But nothing beats a rangefinder for this kind of work. Rangefinders don’t have to deal with an annoying mirror flapping, and are therefore incredibly stable. Interchangeable lens rangefinders such as the Voigtlander Bessa cameras, the Minolta CLE, or any Leica M-camera will do the trick, and with fantastic optics to boot. The only thing we’d watch out for in this category is rangefinder brightness and contrast; some vintage rangefinders lack the handy rangefinder illumination window found on newer models, making low-light shooting next to impossible.

That said, there is a very specific type of rangefinder perfectly suited for shooting live concerts – the fixed-lens rangefinder. These cameras come equipped with incredibly sharp, fast optics, are compact enough to fit inside a bag, and look archaic enough to get past security. But what makes them perfect for the job are their quiet, stable leaf shutters. These leaf shutters enable reliable handheld photography down to a shutter speed of 1/8th of a second (for those of us with steady hands). Cameras which fit this bill include the Olympus 35 RD and 35 SP, the Minolta Hi-Matic 7SII, and the Canonet GIII QL17.

Choose the right glass

It almost goes without saying that shooting concerts means using speedy lenses. As a general rule, I almost never shoot concerts with anything slower than f/2.8. There won’t be a lot of available light, so larger maximum aperture lenses are preferred. If you can, come strapped with your favorite f/2 or f/1.4 lens.

That said, there is an exception to that rule, and it involves another rule – the reciprocal rule. The reciprocal rule states that a 35mm camera’s shutter speed should at least be the reciprocal of the focal length of its lens for sharp handheld photos. For example, a 50mm lens is capable of shutter speeds down to 1/50th of a second. This also means that 35mm lenses can go down to 1/40th of a second, 28mm lenses down to 1/30th of a second, and so on.

The reciprocal rule tells us that wider lenses will excel in low-light situations, even with their slower maximum apertures. This enables 35mm f/2.8 or 28mm f/2.8 lenses to be used for concert photography, although I would personally go for their f/2 variants for extra insurance.

Unfortunately, the rule means that telephotos are at a huge disadvantage due to their need for higher shutter speeds. This does not, however, prevent their usage in the concert photography arena. When used in conjunction with fast film, telephotos in the 135-200mm range become usable, provided they’ve a maximum aperture of at least f/2.8. That said, I’d recommend practicing with those lenses before you go off to battle the forces of telephoto motion blur in a mosh pit.

Choose the right film

Low-light shooting usually means shooting the fastest film you can get your hands on. The logic is simple; faster film enables faster shutter speeds, which means easier low-light photography. But the dynamic, high-contrast nature of concerts and concert lighting means that speed alone won’t cut it. An ideal concert film must also have exceptionally wide exposure latitude in addition to blistering speed.

But what exactly is exposure latitude? Simply put, it’s the amount of over- or under-exposure a certain film can handle. Films with a wide exposure latitude can render clearly a greater amount of detail in the shadows and highlights. These wide latitude films can also be pushed in development to achieve more stable low-light shots while also minimizing the loss in image quality that comes with pushing.

While speed is no doubt important, most high-speed films don’t offer much in the way of latitude. Many of them crush shadows and blow highlights at concerts due to the high-contrast nature of that environment. Ilford Delta 3200 and Fuji Natura 1600 are two films that exhibit these very characteristics, despite their being formulated for low-light shooting. That said, Delta 3200 can be used if underexposed by about a stop to account for bright stage lighting, and Natura 1600 can be used if exposed with a clear bias toward the highlights.

So which film should you take to a concert? Let’s start with the most natural low-light performer, black-and-white film. Two black-and-white films famous for their incredibly wide exposure latitude are Ilford HP5+ and Kodak Tri-X. Both are rated at ISO 400, but avid users of these films know that they can also be pushed up to ISO 3200 reliably, and even further to ISO 6400 if you’re handy in the darkroom. I often find myself shooting both of these films around ISO 800-1600 to give my images a little bit more definition and detail in the shadows and highlights.

Things start to get tricky when we add color into the mix. Most color film is balanced for daylight shooting, and therefore exhibits a noticeable color shift under most types of indoor lighting. The obvious solution to this problem is to shoot film balanced for artificial light (such as a tungsten balanced film like Cinestill 800T) or simply employ a warming or cooling filter, but this becomes impractical considering that concerts often switch between fluorescent, LED, halogen, and tungsten light, in the same show. Add that to the fact that these lights often swirl unpredictably around the stage and shooting color film sounds like a fool’s errand.

But fear not – the task isn’t impossible. If you’re handy with your photo editing software you can edit out some, if not all, of those color shifts. And if you’re willing to get creative with your shots, you can use certain color shifts to your advantage. A synthpop band with a ton of retro-futuristic synths may benefit from the otherworldly blue cast of tungsten balanced film, while a quieter folk band may look a little more at home with the nostalgic yellow glow of daylight balanced film.

All that said, a few color negative films have served me well despite their inherent risks. Kodak Portra 400 and 800 do a great job owing to their exceptionally wide exposure latitude (especially in the case of Portra 400) but require a steady hand to shoot. Speedier films like the aforementioned Fuji Natura 1600 work very well, but if one wants a more unique look, Cinestill 800T is the film to shoot. Cinestill 800T adds a little glow to stage lighting due to its lack of an anti-halation layer and also features an incredible amount of exposure latitude. Cinestill encourages pushing 800T all the way up to ISO 3200 for a noticeable bump in contrast and saturation, which can serve to make a performance look that much more dynamic.

What about slide film? I’d leave the stuff at home. Most commercially available slide film is rated at a sluggish ISO 100 and is infamous for its unforgiving exposure latitude, making most slide films unsuitable for low-light photography. Beautiful as slides are, there just aren’t any commercially available slide films that can handle the rigors of concert photography.

Trust your brain, not your meter

In the chaos of a concert it can be easy, and even sensible, to rely solely upon your camera’s auto-exposure system to make the right exposure. It takes your mind off of your settings and lets you focus on the performance itself. But because concerts by nature are unpredictable shooting environments, I find it’s better to understand exactly what your camera is telling you, decide if that’s something that’ll fit your image, and adjust accordingly.

To start, we must understand the metering and auto-exposure systems that come built in with most vintage 35mm cameras. Most vintage cameras with auto-exposure rely on an average metering pattern, which takes the total amount of light coming through the camera and averages it out to a given exposure value. Some cameras, most notably Nikon SLR’s, utilize a 60/40 center-weighted metering pattern, meaning whatever falls into the center of the frame carries more weight in the total average. This is a great way to expose, but the method can become problematic in extremely high contrast situations, or situations where your subject is off-center.

Take for example the shot above. This is a shot of my good friend Lisa performing at a small cafe. I wanted to try framing her off-center by using somebody’s head to take up most of the frame. I framed up the shot, but my Topcon’s center-weighted meter told me to expose at an unnaturally low shutter speed of 1/8th of a second. I knew that couldn’t be right considering the healthy amount of light at the cafe, so I pointed the camera directly at Lisa, this time without the head in the frame. The camera gave me a much more usable reading of 1/125th of a second at f/1.8. I dialed in those the settings, reframed, and took the shot. If I had relied wholly upon auto-exposure, the audience member’s head would’ve been perfectly exposed, but Lisa herself would’ve become a blown-out, blurry mess.

This brings me to another important aspect of concert photography – deciding how much shadow or highlight detail you’d like in your image. Because concert lighting naturally emphasizes the performers and because shutter speeds must be fast enough to net usable images, I find myself biasing my exposure toward the highlights. However, I do find myself adjusting to accommodate for shadow detail if the occasion calls for it.

Here are some examples, the first two shots being metered for the highlights, the third with a slight bias toward the shadows.

Because these situations are common and require diligent monitoring and manipulation of your settings, I would not recommend using a completely automated camera (such as the aforementioned consumer point-and-shoot) for concert photography. While they are certainly usable in some instances, users are often hamstrung by their lack of exposure information and exposure control. However, autoexposure cameras with manual override are certainly welcome, especially when that camera has an AE lock to make exposure compensation easier. The Nikon F3 and FE SLRs works well, as do the Canon A-series and Minolta X-series SLRs.

Embrace the limitations of film

In many ways, shooting a concert on film seems like more trouble than it’s worth. You have a fixed-focal length lens, a fixed film speed, and a fixed number of exposures, and you’re trying to manipulate these things to avoid unnecessary motion blur, annoying color shifts, and image-destroying underexposure, all while trying to make a meaningful image. Compare this to the relative ease with which modern digital cameras handle the complex lighting of a concert and film looks positively obsolete.

But from shooting numerous concerts on film, I’ve found that the extra effort is more than worth it. Such a demanding shooting environment forces you to use the limitations of film and film gear to your advantage, and can even make you a better photographer for it.

For example, the slower shutter speeds of 1/60th to 1/8th of a second often destroy images with unwanted motion blur. But because these speeds are unavoidable in low light, I’ve learned to apply that blur to artistic effect. I once found myself stuck with some Kodak Ultramax 400 in the middle of a high energy crowd, and my camera wouldn’t give me a shutter speed higher than 1/30th of a second. Instead of stowing my camera away in frustration, I jumped straight into the pit, pointed the camera up at the guitarist, and grabbed one of my best concert shots to date.

Another annoying obstacle is the reliance of most vintage cameras on the fixed focal length lens. At venues where there’s a considerable distance between you and the performer, a fixed focal length lens is a pain. However, there are couple of workarounds. For folks who don’t like to get too caught up in the action of a show, you can use the audience and venue to take up empty space and frame up the artist, which in turns lends a more candid, realistic feel to the image.

But for folks who do like the adrenaline of bumping around at a show, I do encourage jumping straight in and fighting your way to the front, in any venue. Not only will it give you a better chance of getting the shots you want, it’s just plain fun. Just keep your eyes peeled for errant moshers and make sure your camera’s sturdy and well protected.

If there’s just one thing that I’ve learned from taking photos at concerts, it’s that you should do what you’re there to do –  listen to the music. Taking photos at shows is a fun, productive activity, and one that can even open up communication with an artist, but remember that concerts are first and foremost about sharing an experience through music. With that in mind, it’s absolutely worth it to grab a shot to remind yourself of how uniquely beautiful live music can be. Especially on film.

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon
  • Great article! I’ve often thought about these exact questions. I’ve been considering buying a Kodak Retina ii or iii just for those times I want to bring a camera to a concert, since its stealthily pocketable and has a fast 50mm f/2.0 lens. But your article made me appreciate the Canonet QL17 I already have. Thanks!

    • Thanks Abe! The Canonet QL17 is one of my favorite cameras for shooting concerts and one I’d recommend to anybody. The Retina II and III are good options as well, but that RF patch can be harder to see in low light.

  • Great article and wonderful advice, as usual. I fondly remember the days in the 90’s going to shows at veteran’s halls throughout New England with my Pentax K1000. Many of the shots were blurred, but there were always 1 in a few rolls that were actually viewable.

    • Thanks Jonathan! Shooting concerts is tricky business, especially with K1000’s. I had to ditch my old one simply because the mirror made the camera jump around in my hands!

  • I shot my one any only concert so far w/ gramps old K1000 with the 50mm f1.7on Tri-X pushed to 1600. Most of the shoots were between 1/15th & 1/60th. I wasn’t thinking about shadows or highlights and such cause the music was just too good to stand still for long. There were a couple that i got lucky with and like. Can be seen here…

  • Interesting article as I used to shoot many concerts as an amateur in the 80’s with a Chinon CE-4 and a 135mm telephoto using HP5 at 1600asa. I have Sade, Sting, Art Blakey and many others in my archives. I still shoot at small gigs but it’s with digital however I just might pop some HP5+ into my Pentax MZ-S and see what the results are.

    • Please do, and share the shots with us when you get them! I’m sure it’ll be just as fun as it was in the 80’s, although seeing Sade nowadays is about as likely as seeing a unicorn… super jealous that you got to see her!

      • Excellent article well written, outstanding suggesstions. In your response to iGlad certainly you are not super jealous, you are super envious. Envy is the emotion of coveting what someone else has or has accomplished or is going to do, while jealousy is the emotion related to fear that something you have will be taken away by someone else. Using jealous for envy is a very common English grammar mistake.

    • Do you have your 80’s images on a page somewhere? I’m sure that I’m not the only one who’d love to see them! I currently shoot with a 35mm SLR or RF and short telephoto at 1600 or 6400. It’s fun to see my images alongside those of digital shooters who covered the same event. I know a few guys who also shoot film and digital during a show. Certainly worth continuing with film in my opinion. The world would be boring if we all shot the same way!

  • I took my Yashica T4 Super out of storage this week and got couple rolls of Tri-X. The T4 is a P&S with a f3.5 Carl Zeiss lens and I know my limitation with this camera. Any suggestions? Thx

  • such a great article! covers everything and more for me, I shot a roll of triX on a russian TLR yesterday and thought to myself – maybe I should research some tips and tricks? I was mostly winging it on very low shutter speeds and double exposures and they’re probably going to have lots of motion blur but I’m hoping for some cool ones.

  • Hi, thanks for this article, quite interesting!
    How about using Olympus XA series. XA is it 2.8 but ISO is only till 800, and maybe focusing would be difficult I think.
    Also I own XA3, iso 1600, zone focusing… what do you think?
    I plan to use Ilford HP5 forced to 1600 max.

    Also own canonet Q17 Giii I might use. Do you shoot in aperture priority? Maybe it is better option than XAs?


    • Isra, if I may offer my thoughts:

      The XA series certainly have the form factor right for amateur/casual concert photography. I think your concerns about ISO are valid though. The XA’s range is 2.8 and 800 while the XA3 is 3.5 and 1600. So they are effectively the same EV. For outdoor concerts or very brightly lit ones, you MIGHT get by. My other concern is the slightly wide lenses on these. Much would depend on the size of the band and how close you can get as to if that 35mm focal length would be too wide or not. Focusing probably wouldn’t be as large a concern as you might imagine since 35mm lenses with fairly small maximum apertures have a lot of DoF.

      I would think that if you can get it through the door, the QL17 would be a wiser decision because of it’s much faster lens and slightly longer focal length. Exposure mode really just depends on how comfortable you are. I find any auto exposure for a concert can get in my way because you’re often dealing with spot-lit subjects and rapidly changing light. Modern cameras with AE can keep up with some of this but many vintage AE systems cannot. More evenly, constantly lit shows will of course be easier.

  • Great article, Josh! Packed full of details on a number of critical points. I’ve found that there are numerous articles that address concert photography with digital cameras which are astoundingly overly simplistic and leave me wondering if the author has any hard understanding of basic photography or if they rely 100% on their preview to make decisions. It’s clear that you’re both deeply knowledgeable and experienced with an array of concert lighting styles and approaches to them. Very commendable. I like that you also acknowledge how much easier concert photography is with digital. Between the preview, numerous metering patterns and vibration reduction, I also almost find myself questioning my reason for shooting film for this genre. But you do a fantastic job of reminding us with a strong set of less conventional yet very compelling images. Thank you!

  • One camera that might be a good choice if you’re worried about mirror slap would be the old Canon Pellix. Your nice fast lenses are about half a stop slower, but you have a pellicle reflex mirror and TTL metering (stopped down only, but as you’d likely be shooting wide open much of the time that’s not much of an issue really). Its also another camera to go on the list of interesting things to talk about, and being a 1960s camera you’re more likely to get it past security than an EOS-1RS.

  • Thank you for your article! I alwayse enjoy it. This remindes me of my days shooting a lot of concerts. Back in the early mid. 2000 you could acutally bring your camera to concerts, get to a good spot and start shooting. I did it with a lot of cool bands. Pushed the hell out of HP5 and TriX and my 50/1.4 Rokkor Lens on my Minolta XD7. Sadly these days it’s almost impossible to shoot. You get scanned at the entrance and even if you sneak a camera into the hall you might get kicked out while shooting. It happed and I still see it often even if almost everybody pulls out the latest iphone and have better iso capacity than my hp5. It’s sad because a lot of culture is lost. Famous guys like Danny Clinch or Anton Corbijn started shooting like that…

  • Great article thanks! I am also a gigging musician and have been trying with mixed results to take photos of jazz gigs, mostly very dark clubs and restaurants. I was using a k1000 50mm f2 with trix among others, mostly just ending up really underexposed unless there were bright stage lights. I picked up a canonet based on this recommendation, coming tomorrow. I am thinking I will try this with trix pushed to 1600. What shutter would you suggest as the lowest I can go before the (relatively stationary) musicians are a blur? And I will be able to shoot 1/30 handheld possibly? Thanks for any tips on top of those already given.

  • Good article.
    I also used to shoot many concerts when living in Finland years ago. Mando Diao, The Crash, Scandinavian Music Group, jazz festivals… beautiful memories.
    I was using old school SLRs with an M42 Takumar 105mm. Films: Neopan 1600, HP5+ pushed 1stop, Fuji Superia 800.

  • On the Canonet, “half-press” the shutter & the metered aperture will be locked while you recompose. Since it is not a real AE lock, one can also use it for exposure compensation. Changing the shutter speed after “locking” won’t affect the chosen f-stop, either.
    Lots of (unintentional) pro-features on this little gem!

  • Michael S. Goldfarb February 18, 2021 at 10:17 am

    I’ve shot lots of concerts over the last 40+ years, with everything from a Minox III-s to a Nikkormat FTn.

    But my best concert shot is the one below, where I managed to work my way right up to the front of the oft-called “best” Grateful Dead show, at Cornell U 5/8/77. (Not really the “best”, though it’s definitely at outstanding show from a year when they were at one of their creative peaks.) Shot on Tri-X – not pushed, at 400 – at 1/15, wide open at f/2.8, with my Petri Color 35 (40mm fixed lens). The trick with this shot was waiting until a pause in the vocals of a slow song (“St. Stephen”) to avoid motion blur. With no vibration from the leaf shutter, it’s nice and sharp: I made dry-mounted 12×16 prints for my Deadhead friends.

  • In the 70s and 80s I shot hundreds of concerts. I used colour transparency film Ektachrome rated at 360 then GAF 500. The difference between tungsten and daylight film was negated by the coloured lights used. Regards metering I managed to get on stage at my first ever gig and take incident light readings when the lights were at different levels. I averaged them out at around EV9, that’s 1/30th at f4. I’ve pretty well stuck to this exposure with big stages ever since. Only when I start metering do my exposures start to go off. Lights are brighter these days. Mostly thought these days I use my phone for stage shows. The way it deals with exposure is incredible. I used SLRs with a 135 f2 prime. Yep I’ve had failure but who hasnt?

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon